V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket
For a brief period in the 1990s, I did the rounds of Chennai's cricket grounds where age group cricket was being played. It was delightful to watch the youngest cricketers, belonging to the Under-13 category, with their fierce passion and unconcealed delight or disappointment when they clean-bowled a batsman, took a good catch or scored some runs, failed or appealed in vain. Most of them were immaculately turned out, with their English willow bats, perfect protective gear, including helmets and elbow guards - thanks to their new generation parents who took an active, sometimes hyperactive interest in their cricket.
There was talent in abundance. Some of the little fellows could really belt the ball long and hard. The bowling was less impressive overall, with many of the aspiring pace bowlers too poorly endowed physically to generate any pace, and mostly tending to spray the ball around. There were some decent spinners, with a surprising number of them wristspinners of promise. This development was perhaps the result of the Shane Warne ball of the century. Of course, every batsman was a prodigy of Sachinesque potential in his parents' doting eyes. The poor coach had to field their ambitious queries all the time: ''When will my boy play for India?'' was a standard question, and the mother or father of the young player did not easily accept an ambivalent answer.
I usually sat far from the pavilion, permanent or makeshift, in order to insulate myself from these annoying conversations and to avoid being seen by parents who might spot a useful contact in me, given my assumed but non-existent influence with the selectors.
Cricket parents were the reason why I stopped watching junior cricket. Most coaches and cricket administrators, very similar to tennis coaches and mentors, will tell you what a nuisance some of these people can be, with their technicolor dreams for their offspring.
One particular instance made me quit what was otherwise a pleasant pastime that gave me the vicarious pleasure of being part of the growth of the occasional exceptional talent. A young batsman, let's call him ''A'', was run out in a misunderstanding with his partner ''B'', and instinctively reacted angrily but only fleetingly. But watching from the boundary line, his father was not amused. When the players were trooping off for lunch, he caught hold of the still unbeaten ''B'' and hurled a stream of expletives at him, questioning his parentage and accusing him of sabotaging his son's career.
Meddling parents is not the only reason why I am against organised U-13 cricket competition. While it is perfectly normal for kids to play matches at an early age, the official competitions for cricketers yet to reach their full height and weight force these kids to specialise too early in their lives. How does a 12-year old know whether he will attain in his adulthood the physical attributes necessary for a fast bowler? How many aspiring spin bowlers know how to manage their rapid height growth in puberty, which causes problems in flight and trajectory all of a sudden for them?
Competitive cricket at such an early age also tends towards over-coaching and stereotyping, often at the expense of a boy cricketer's natural ability.
During the period of the eminent Hemu Adhikari's stint as national head of coaching for juniors, it was jokingly said that he tended to convert offspinners into legspinners and fast bowlers into batsmen. This had a sniff of truth in it, and there were confused spinners in the 1970s who did not know whether they were wristspinners or fingerspinners.
Once the young cricketer is physically formed, he gets to know his physical strengths and weaknesses, and that is the right time to specialise.
A lot of spontaneity and freedom marked the cricket the young played in the 1950s and '60s, and most kids tried everything from fast bowling to wicketkeeping until they were 16 or so when about to leave school. If you take the example of a slow bowler, this is when he really learnt to impart spin. He learned to give the ball a real tweak and tried to obtain as much turn as he could muster - before concentrating on accuracy.
The problem with a bowler who starts to specialise in one department early is that he invariably learns line and length before he has mastered spin, swing or seam. This can lead to an army of defensive bowlers who cannot defeat batsmen with lateral movement, spin or pace. Budding tearaways tend to get defanged in the pursuit of economy.
The other result of such early exposure to competitive cricket is the emergence of an assembly line of batsmen. This could be one of the factors in India's riches in the batting department and its relatively weak bowling attack.
Some of the better fast bowlers India has produced, Javagal Srinath for instance, started bowling fast when they were 17 or 18. They had not come through the organised system, where they would have burned out by that age.
The most disgusting by-product of age group cricket is the widespread age cheating in which players, schools, coaches, administrators and parents collude. How can we build character in a cricketer while condoning or even encouraging dishonesty?
We all agree that cricket, like any other sport, should be enjoyed by its players, especially during their childhood and adolescence. Why then don't we keep children out of the official age-group competitions until they are 16, instead of pushing them into competitive cricket earlier?